Recently I had the need to drive to a place I don’t often go in Christchurch. As I did so, I was amazed by the amount of development that has gone on. We’re well over a decade past the Christchurch quakes and yet there are still new houses and renovations happening at pace. It’s a boon for tradespeople and it’s changing the face of the city.

Seeing all of this construction got me thinking about a conversation I had with a young mate of mine. F is an old friend of my son. They went to school together, but young F wasn’t big on the traditional learning thing. Indeed, he pretty much gave up on school before it was even legally okay to do so. Like many young lads, book learning wasn’t his thing and the school didn’t offer much for him.

After spending time working as a butcher, he joined his father, a craftsman builder, to learn the trade. These guys aren’t your average builders. It’s not a case of standing up pre-nailed frames or glorified Lego construction with these guys. This is a team that does serious quality work. Indeed, over the lockdown, my young mate decided to build a new set of windows for a property he was renovating. He did so completely by hand using his grandfather’s hand tools, with techniques that are almost never seen today.

Remembering those hand-crafted windows, and passing by dozens and dozens of building projects, all utilising the same soulless aluminium joinery, made me consider what we’ve foregone in the pursuit of efficiency. You see, in this day and age, we are driven to be as efficient as possible. Every enterprise is looked at under the microscope of time and motion. It’s as if Adam Smith had been reincarnated a few hundred years later and has moved on from pin factories to building sites. Where a machine can perform a function we rapidly rip out a skilled craftsperson and replace them.

No longer does a tradesperson complete an entire project (well, not many tradespeople, anyway). Nowadays it’s all about specialisation – there’s the concrete crew who pour the foundations, the huge pre-nail frame and truss factories that make stuff to plan, never seeing the end result. There are the specialist roofers, the joiners, the cabinet makers, the tilers… You get the drift. All of these trades in isolation, and none seeing, let alone being involved with, the entire project.

Of course, the way we drive efficiency in this modern age is through automation. Computer Numeric Controlled cutters, GPS-driven diggers and the like. How many builders can still build frames or trusses let alone set up a foundation without the aid of advanced machines? But here’s the thing: Machines break down. The power goes off. Blades get chipped and blunt. For a myriad of reasons, sometimes we need those time-honoured skills in order to make things happen.

At the risk of returning to my perennial favourite topics, it’s a theme that is the same in my world, the apparel sector. In our business, Cactus Outdoor we have recently purchased a quarter of a million dollar computer-controlled cutting machine. This machine is incredible, fast, safe and efficient. It really is a thing of beauty to watch. This piece of engineering prowess can run 24 hours a day with very little manual intervention.

However, at the same time, as we have invested in this machine, we still deeply appreciate our amazing cutting team. One member of this team has been working in the industry his entire working life. He’s a craftsman tailor, who learned the trade at Lane Walker Rudkin, the famed Christchurch apparel manufacturing company. He’s passing on his knowledge to a young woman who herself is learning both traditional and modern approaches.

Now I’m not saying we should give up on modernisation and go back to those time-honoured techniques en masse. But unless we protect those skills, and impart that knowledge to a new generation of makers, we’ll all lose out. In addition, the houses we live in and the clothes we wear will become simple commodities lacking charm and character. And that would be a sad thing.


Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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